Perhaps no other nation has struggled more openly and painfully with its collective conscience on the issue of human slavery than the United States.
From its very foundations in 1776, it has been forced to reconcile the principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” with the widespread practice of buying and selling human beings into slavery. Reconciling equality and slavery first came to a head eleven years later in drafting the fundamental principles that would govern the United States. Specifically, Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution addresses how representatives and taxes are to be apportioned among the states.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Delegates who opposed slavery wanted only free persons included in that number, while supporters of slavery were insistent that all persons including slaves were to be counted. By denying slaves the right to vote, delegates who urged including slaves hoped to achieve the desired outcome of greater representation of slaveholders in Congress. The three-fifths compromise clearly did not reconcile this fundamental conflict between equality and slavery.
Two fundamental problems surfaced in the ensuing years. What to do with fugitive slaves? What to do when territories entered the Union as sovereign states? A bloody civil war forced the reconciliation issue to a head. In the end, President Lincoln asserted that emancipation was the answer to those deeply divisive questions and the overwhelming power of the Union armies brutally enforced his edicts.
Slavery in the United States did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Even today, it continues across the land though, until the southern border became an open border in January, few Americans were aware of it. Not even the U.S. State Department, which for the past 20 years has
been publishing an annual report on extent of trafficking on a global basis, is able to provide comprehensive estimates of the extent of trafficking in the United States. The only information available relates to reported incidents of trafficking.
The trusting, innocent, dependent nature of children, coupled with their lack of worldly experience, make them especially vulnerable to entrapment in slavery. For that reason, their enslavement is an even greater atrocity than adult enslavement. However, estimating the extent of the various forms of child slavery and trafficking is quite difficult not only because the practice is clandestine but also because the children are silenced by their own fear and survival needs. Nevertheless, the practice of enslavement and trafficking is so widespread today that we cannot use a lack of entirely reliable information, or our own ignorance, as justifications for inaction.
Slavery and trafficking rob their victims of their sacred dignity as human beings, a dignity that inheres in the very nature of every human being and is everyone’s birthright. Slavery attacks the whole person — body, mind, and spirit — and reduces that person to an object or instrument for someone else’s advantage or enrichment. Slavery and trafficking subordinate one person to another, treating the core social values of freedom, equality, and community with contempt. Slavery and trafficking scoff at Kant’s second imperative that no one may be used for the pleasure of another human being; no one may be reduced to instrumental value. Thus, no one may be regarded as more highly valued — more equal — than anyone else.
Just as there are two principal parties to the practice of slavery — the person enslaved and the one who enslaves — there are two sets of reasons as to why the practice persists. On the part of the person enslaved there is a material need grounded in the unrelieved poverty and dearth of opportunities of that person’s pre-enslavement circumstances. If a child is involved, his/her family or guardian may use that unmet need to push him/her into labor that through
deception, force, and violence is exploited, where the poverty continues and a form of bondage may be imposed. The promise of marriage may entrap a girl into forced prostitution. Both boys and girls may be threatened or tricked into prostitution by false promises of work. On the part of the person who enslaves, the reason is self-evident: the opportunity to exploit children as sources of cheap labor, to use them as objects for sexual pleasure, or to engage in the direct buying or selling of them for others to exploit.
Liberating and rehabilitating children who are enslaved or trafficked begin with the recognition that slavery and trafficking today are a worldwide human tragedy that ultimately reduces to one human being treating another as an exploitable property rather than a human person. Sympathy for the oppressed will not do because it is a human feeling which involves taking no action. The remedy, ultimately, is one human being treating another who has been exploited with empathy which requires the act of taking on the burden of the person who has been exploited. At minimum it requires providing support for the person of action who directly takes on that burden.
Human slavery and trafficking are rooted in a culture of death and despair. They will persist as long as humankind clings to the cultural value that there is a life not worth living, where some human beings are reducible to disposable objects. In the end there is no reconciliation possible between slavery and trafficking and the principle of equality without rejecting the sacred dignity of every human being that is affirmed in and a culture of life and hope that inspired the assertion by the Founding Fathers that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
In other words, reconciliation is possible only when no one is willing to affirm that some persons are in fact more equal than others.
Edward J. O’Boyle is a Senior Research Associate with Mayo Research Institute. He has offices in West Monroe, Lake Charles and New Orleans. He can be reached at 381-4002 or firstname.lastname@example.org.